SEATTLE — James Jones’ path to his dream was once flanked by port-a-potties.
Long Island University was preparing a graduation ceremony on the baseball field where Jones had played for three years. About a dozen houses of relief were lined up early. Jones zoomed past as he ran sprints for scouts.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, Jones went from tagging-along 7-year-old to a prospect who may be a pitcher or outfielder, and, eventually, an unlikely regular at the top of the Seattle Mariners’ 2014 lineup.
The 25-year-old is a high-socked galloper still buzzing around like the centuries-old game is new. He’s hitting .280 as Seattle’s starting center fielder, has stolen 14 bases in 15 attempts and stuck around after being summoned from Tacoma a second time this year. Most are surprised.
“I think he’s far exceeded any expectations I might have had for him coming in,” Seattle manager Lloyd McClendon said.
At 7 years old, Jones received a black-and-brown Franklin glove for Christmas. He grabbed it when a friend didn’t want to go to baseball tryouts alone a couple of months later.
That was his baseball start. Jones made new friends, his team won, parents shouted from the stands. Baseball had hooked him, so much so it was his sport throughout his time at Brooklyn’s High School of Telecommunications, just off the Gowanus Expressway in the southern end of New York City.
A one-season dalliance with track his freshman year came and went. After, Jones was a left-handed pitcher, first baseman and outfielder in high school who went on to play the same positions at nearby LIU.
Ed D'Alessio was the baseball coach at Telecommunications. He was also an associate scout for the Mariners, a pair of inner-city eyes in a business which has dwindling interest in mining Northeast metro areas for talent. D'Alessio, a Mariners regional scout and an assistant coach at LIU, told Mariners’ scouting director Tom McNamara he may want to take a look at Jones.
McNamara is a New York City native open to all excuses for a visit. He tried to see Jones twice, foiled first by rain, then again when Jones caught the flu. Eventually, McNamara was able to see Jones run past the port-a-potties. Jones also worked at first base and in the outfield. He took some swings. McNamara, who played in the minor leagues, had played on many of the same fields as Jones. They exchanged stories about the common ground.
The Mariners selected him as a position player in the fourth round of the 2009 draft. Jones had reached 95 mph on radar guns as a left-handed pitcher who primarily started, making it enticing to put him on the mound. But Seattle had him pegged as an outfielder with a potent fall-back skill. Jones had a hefty 7.25 ERA his freshman season with the Blackbirds, but left-handers who throw 95 are Bigfoot-sighting rare. It was something to keep in mind.
“Leading up to the draft, I was just hoping someone gave me an opportunity either way,” Jones said.
Jones started with the short season Everett AquaSox. Next were the Clinton LumberKings, High Desert Mavericks and Double-A Jackson Generals. Jones hit .247 his first season in High Desert. He fixed that with a .306 average and .875 OPS the following year. Spurts of struggle made the Mariners think harder and harder about moving Jones to the mound. Not just for them. Moving Jones to the mound would make him an intriguing option for other teams to consider. Then, he would right things at the plate and advance.
Adaptation has been Jones’ greatest strength and pursuit since joining the Mariners after 95 at-bats with Triple-A Tacoma.
He had a stop-gap call-up April 16 when the Mariners were in Miami. He called his mom, Brena, to deliver the news. She accused him of messing with her. Then he called his sister.
“I was shocked,” Jones said.
Jones picked up an infield hit that night and was sent back to Tacoma the next day.
He returned May 5. A 14-game hitting streak soon followed.
Tucked down the clubhouse steps and behind the dugout and batting cage is the Mariners’ video room. Jones initially went in there focused on pitch movement. Elders Robinson Cano, Willie Bloomquist and John Buck told Jones he should be studying situation-based tendencies from pitchers. If there are two runners on in the sixth and the count is 2-2, what’s coming?
“I realized my way of looking at video isn’t there way of looking at video,” Jones said. “Being able to draw your plan to what type of player you are. Being mindful of their tendencies. So, it’s more in-depth.”
He appears to be retaining the information, a hurdle for any major leaguer. Jones is hitting .200 in his first at-bat against a pitcher. That spikes to .395 the second time he sees the same pitcher. Third time through, he’s hitting .333.
“You get exposed real quick if you’re not prepared in the big leagues,” Jones said.
James Jones in the big leagues. That’s a message he, McNamara and McClendon hopes trickles back to African-American kids in metro areas. Their presence at baseball’s highest level – and even in between – continues to dwindle. According to Major League Baseball, only 8.3 percent of players on 2014 opening day rosters identified themselves as African-American or black.
Asked about the decline, McClendon and Jones independently point to cost as an inhibitor. McClendon also feels the difficulty of the game is another challenge. The reward in basketball and football is much more quickly attained.
“I know when my son played college baseball, I go see him play, he’s the only black on either team,” McClendon said. “Is it discouraging? Yeah. Very discouraging. How we change it? I’m not sure. It’s probably more economic than anything else. Unless somebody, including baseball, is going to influx not only money, but presence into the inner city, it’s going to continue to decline.”
“I do think about it,” Jones said. “But, it’s more of maybe down the line where I am blessed with that opportunity to give inner city players a chance. Doesn’t have to be black, but people that live in the inner city places with a bunch of people who can’t (financially) handle having their kids go play in tournaments, being able to help with that. I’ll definitely look into that.”
In the present, Jones will work on being a better bunter, center fielder and all-around player. His comfort and route precision in center field needs to increase. He’s homerless, but the Mariners think some power will come. That’s not the crux of his game, anyway.
Jones still has the black-and-brown Franklin mitt from that distant Christmas. It broke some time back and he failed when trying to stitch it back together.
His current major-league model will have to do.